Though the International Olympic Committee has sought to keep politics — and political expression — out of the arena, each Olympics has nevertheless reflected the politics of its era. With U.S.-China relations chillier than they’ve been in some time, there have been calls for the Biden administration to consider some form of Olympic boycott, as the Carter administration did ahead of the 1980 Moscow Games.
So when State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a briefing that a U.S. Olympic boycott was “one of the issues that is on the agenda, both now and going forward,” his comments sent shock waves through the Olympic community. The State Department then backtracked, saying it has “not discussed and are not discussing any joint boycott with allies and partners.” Beijing quickly warned Washington against any potential boycott, citing a “robust Chinese response.”
Do Americans support a 2022 Olympic boycott?
But what would the American people think about this? A recent Chicago Council survey conducted March 19-21 reveals more public support for an Olympic boycott than you might expect. Fielded among a nationally representative sample of 1,017 Americans, Americans are split over the question of a U.S. boycott of the 2022 Beijing Games in response to China’s human rights abuses. Half of Americans (49 percent) favor an Olympic boycott, while nearly as many (46 percent) are opposed.
And while partisanship colors Americans’ view of a boycott, the survey reveals a narrower gap than on many other China-related issues. A majority of Republicans favor a boycott (53 percent in favor vs. 42 percent opposed), compared with a minority of Democrats (45 percent vs. 51 percent). Independents, meanwhile, are divided (48 percent in favor vs. 44 percent opposed).
But a number of factors may be pushing Americans to support a boycott, regardless of their party affiliation. Republicans and Democrats alike have grown increasingly negative in their views of China in recent years. Additionally, Republicans have become far more likely to view China’s rise as a critical threat to the United States. And while Democrats are generally more inclined to seek a cooperative relationship with Beijing, Pew Research polling finds that they are just as likely as Republicans to say that China’s policies on human rights are a very serious problem for the United States.
These types of underlying concerns could fuel wider political support for a boycott. If politicians on both sides of the aisle believe there is an advantage in being seen as “tough on China,” elected officials could appeal to these concerns within their parties. In this sense, backing an Olympic boycott would be a high-profile vehicle for an official to demonstrate China hawk bona fides.
But how far down this road will U.S. political leaders want to go? The people most immediately affected by a U.S. boycott will be Americans: the members of the U.S. Olympic team. For this reason Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), president and chief executive of the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, called the boycott “the wrong answer,” arguing that it is “unfair to ask a few hundred young American athletes to shoulder the burden of our disapproval.” And a 2020 Washington Post interview with members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team recounts the anger and disappointment many of these athletes felt long after the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Who else might join the U.S. in a boycott?
If the United States did move forward with a boycott, would anyone else come along? Polling suggests at least one potential boycott partner: Canada. In a recent Research Co. poll, more than half of Canadians (54 percent) said Canada should boycott the Beijing Winter Games, while just a quarter (24 percent) said Canada should not — with 21 percent of respondents unsure.
Of course, this isn’t the first time a U.S. Olympic boycott involving China has been in the cards. Following Beijing’s crackdown on Tibetan protests that spring, human rights groups protested the international torch relay and opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, and advocated for a U.S. boycott, too. But the notion was far less popular at the time: A CNN poll conducted in April 2008 found that most Americans (72 percent) favored U.S. participation in the Games.
Americans came to regret boycotting the 1980 Moscow Games
History also suggests that even a boycott with popular backing might come with regret afterward.
The U.S. decision not to attend the 1980 Moscow Olympics was popular with the U.S. public at the time. A Time magazine poll in January 1980 found 68 percent of Americans in favor of an Olympic boycott to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. U.S. athletes may have been disappointed, but an NBC News-AP poll in August 1980, just after the Olympics ended, found that two-thirds of Americans (67 percent) approved of the U.S. decision to boycott the event (27 percent disapproved).
But with time came regrets. In 1984, USA Today asked Americans whether the U.S. should have boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games and found that far more thought the boycott was a mistake (48 percent) than backed it (29 percent), while 23 percent weren’t sure. Perhaps Americans came to see the Olympic boycott, despite the scope, as ineffective in pushing the USSR to change course in Afghanistan. Or perhaps the Soviet retaliatory boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games caused Americans to have a change of heart.
If the United States does boycott the Beijing Games, that same scenario of dueling boycotts between rival superpowers could play itself out once more. After all, the United States will host the 2028 Summer Games — and in Los Angeles, once again.
Craig Kafura is the assistant director of public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a Truman National Security Fellow, and a Pacific Forum Young Leader. Find him on Twitter @ckafura.